Who Is a Gentile and What Does the Bible Say about Them?
- Rev. Kyle Norman Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 16 Jul
It may seem strange at first, but if we want to know who the Gentiles are, we need to begin by understanding the identity of the Jews.
What Separates Jews from Gentiles?
Jews are those who trace their heredity and lineage back to Abraham. They are God’s chosen nation, holy and dearly loved.
They live in covenant relationship with God; they worship at the Temple; they have a prime place in God’s salvation plan. Even Jesus affirmed that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Much of the Bible describes God’s loving interaction with his chosen people.
In contrast to the Jewish people, there are the Gentiles, or better yet, everyone else. Simply put, Gentiles are not Jewish. They are people who cannot trace their familial line back to one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Greeks, Romans, Barbarians, Scythians, Americans, and Canadians — if you are not an Israelite, you are a Gentile.
Originally, Gentile was not a derogatory term. “Gentile” is simply the translation of the Hebrew word goy or the Greek word ethnos — both meaning “nation,” “ethnicity,” or “people.” The definition appears simple and straightforward.
A non-Jewish person was, by definition, a Gentile — someone from a different nation. Of course, human pride and sin inevitably transformed this term into an insult. Gentile became synonymous with “sinful” (Galatians 2:15). Yet is this how God views the Gentile people?
Instead of simply defining Gentiles by who they are not, perhaps it is better to think about who they are. After all, when we look at God’s dealing with Gentile people, we do not always see a clear distinction between them and the Jews.
In fact, Gentiles often play a significant role in salvation history. When we define Gentiles simply as “not-Jewish,” we miss important truths about the Gentile people.
So, who are the Gentiles? Below are three things we should remember.
Gentiles Are Loved by God
The act of choosing is often seen to be exclusive. Choosing one means not choosing the other. Thus, we assume that God’s choice of Israel as the people of God necessarily involves the exclusion of the Gentiles. When we look at Scripture, however, we see that the Gentiles have always had a place in God’s loving heart.
This goes back to the covenant that God made with Abraham. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:4) and that these nations would be “more numerous than the sands on the shore” (Genesis 22:17). This is not merely a reference to the future 12 tribes. God’s desire was for the entirety of humanity to exist in loving relationship with him.
It was for this purpose that Israel was chosen. As God’s chosen people, Israel was to be a light of God’s love to the nations (Isaiah 60:1-3). Instead of pridefully touting their privilege, Israel was to be a serving people, blessing others and testifying to the greatness of God.
An example of this is God’s instruction to leave the borders of their fields untouched. Israel was to provide for the needs of the wandering Gentile. Leviticus reads, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you” (Leviticus 23:22).
Israel was to be an agent of God’s love in the world. Faithfulness to God, and life in the Promised Land, necessarily included care and provision for the Gentiles. From this, we can conclude that the Gentiles were never “excluded” from God’s love or care. God loves all people, regardless of national or ethnic origin.
Gentiles Had a Place in the Temple
Each year, millions of people would journey to Jerusalem to partake in one of the major festivals and pray at the Temple. Along with the multitude of faithful Jews, numerous Gentiles converts would also make this journey. A Gentile convert was someone who had forsaken the idols of their home nation to embrace the God of Israel.
They were known as “God-fearers” (Acts 10:22). The inner courts of the Temple, however, were not open to Gentiles. Thus, one of the outer courts was specifically named the “court of the Gentiles.” This was the only place a Gentile convert could pray at the Temple.
Scholars point out that it was the court of the Gentiles that became filled with the money changers. When Jesus drives out the money changers from the Temple, he is not merely upset at the denigration of a place of prayer, but also at the usurpation of the only location within the Temple reserved for Gentile worship.
In filling the court of the Gentiles with the money changers, Gentile converts were effectively excluded from the Temple. Jesus rebukes the money changers with the cry, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). He is justifiably angry about the flagrant lack of care and respect for the Gentile worshipers.
This limiting of Gentile worship is in direct contrast to God’s purpose for the Temple. Jesus’ lament is a quotation from the prophet Isaiah. Here, God declares that the Gentile people would have a place within God’s house.
Isaiah reads: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it and holds fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
The temple was never a place to be exclusively enjoyed by Israelites alone. Even Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the original Temple contained a petition for the blessing of the Gentiles (1 Kings 8:41-43). Worship at the temple was always to include an opportunity for Gentile people to meet the living God.
Gentiles Are Included in God’s Promises
When we refer to the Gentiles as simply “not Jewish,” the assumption can be made that Gentile people do not enjoy the promises of God. This is not true. God continually includes the Gentile people in the promises of faith.
While we see hints of this in the Old Testament (primarily through people such as Rahab, or Ruth), this becomes a major theme in the New Testament. Gentiles are fully adopted into the people of faith; there is not one of God’s promises that does not apply.
Peter’s interaction with Cornelius is a great example of this. Peter initially believes that fellowship with Gentile people is prohibited. Yet in a vision, Peter is told that the old classifications of “clean vs. unclean” do not hold true in the resurrection (Acts 10:15).
Guided by the Spirit, Peter journeys to Cornelius’ home where the Holy Spirit is poured out upon Cornelius and the other Gentile Christians. The descent of the Spirit is a clear indication that “God shows no favoritism but accepts people from every nation” (Acts 10:34). The Gentile people are included in the promise of faith.
This descent of the Spirit upon the Gentiles is a fulfillment of God’s promise made through the prophet Joel. Joel prophecies that the day of the Lord will be met with a pouring out of God’s spirit “on all people” (2:28). Joel makes clear that the day of the Lord will involve the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit is available to all.
The inclusion of Gentiles in the people of faith, however, goes beyond the reception of the Spirit. Receiving the Spirit is a sign of one’s inheritance in eternal life. Scripture makes clear that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile when it comes to salvation.
Paul declares that the mystery of God, revealed in Christ, is that Gentiles are “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:6). As Gentiles are full members of the people of God on earth, they are full members of the people of God in the heavenly realms.
In fact, this is one of the most profound elements of John’s vision in the Book of Revelation. John receives a vision of heaven that includes Gentile people! As John is guided through his vision, he sees a great multitude in white robes “from every nation (ethnos), tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).
All stand before the throne of God, worshiping the mighty Lamb. What is intriguing about this vision is that the attire attributed to the Gentile multitude is the very attire that would have been associated with the Jewish priesthood. Not only does John see Gentile people in heaven, but Gentiles serve the risen Lamb in the most intimate and priestly of manners.
The point is this: Heaven contains the Gentiles. Gentiles enjoy fellowship with God in the most intimate of ways. Gentiles are wrapped in God’s loving delight for all eternity.
Does This Change How We Define Gentiles?
We make a grave mistake whenever we simply define the Gentiles by who they are not. Doing so ignores the vast scriptural testimony regarding God’s love and care for the Gentile people. Biblical examples abound.
God uses Rahab to save the Israelite spies, Ruth becomes the great grandmother of King David, God longs for the salvation of Nineveh; Jesus frequently ministered to Gentile men and women; Paul, Peter, Lydia, and Philip are specifically tasked to spread the gospel to the Gentile world. We cannot read the scriptures without uncovering God’s blessing upon the Gentile people.
No, the Gentiles are not simply “non-Jews.” Gentiles are loved by God and redeemed by Jesus. Gentiles are people filled with the Holy Spirit and commissioned to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.
More than anything, Gentiles are heirs of the promise of salvation, and co-heirs with Christ. This is what God sees when he looks at a Gentile person. Thus, if you are a Gentile person, this is how God sees you.
Photo Credit: ©SparrowStock
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.
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